Canzoniere 173

Mirando ‘l sol de’ begli occhi sereno,                    Avising the bright beams of these fair eyes

ove è che spesso i miei depinge et bagna,         Where he is that mine oft moisteth and washeth,

dal cor l’ anima stanca si scompagna                  The wearied mind straight from the heart departeth

per gir nel paradiso suo terreno.                             For to rest in his worldly paradise

Poi trovandol di dolce et d’ amar pieno,                 And find the sweet bitter under this guise.

quant’ al mondo si tesse, opra d’ aragna             What webs he hath wrought well he perceiveth

vede: onde seco et con Amor si lagna,                  Whereby with himself on love he plaineth

ch’ à sí caldi gli spron’, sí duro ‘l freno.                 That spurreth with fire and bridleth with ice.

Per questi extremi duo contrari et misti,                Thus is it in such extremity brought,

or con voglie gelate, or con accese                         In frozen thought, now and now it standeth in flame.

stassi cosí fra misera et felice;                                Twixt misery and wealth, twixt earnest and game,

ma pochi lieti, et molti penser’ tristi,                       But few glad, and many diverse thought

e ‘l piú si pente de l’ ardite imprese:                      With sore repentance of his hardiness.

tal frutto nasce di cotal radice.                                 Of such a root cometh fruit fruitless.

[trans. by Sir Thomas Wyatt]


A sonnet from the In vita section of the Canzoniere consisting of a seemingly conventional display of familiar themes and motifs which recur with great frequency throughout the collection, most notably the opposition between desire and repentance and the spiritual implications arising out of the poet’s relationship with Laura.  Positive emblems usually associated with Laura, such as the sun and the earthly paradise, are charged with negative connotations through the ambiguity of Petrarch’s language and the intertextual connections which we are invited to make between this poem and the relevant sections of the Bible, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Dante’s Commedia.  The sonnet represents a synthesis of the themes explored by Petrarch in the Secretum and the letter describing his ascent of Mount Ventoux (Familiares IV, 1): the consequences of his overzealous pursuit of both Laura and literary fame, and the privileging of knowledge of the external, secular world over his own spiritual well-being.

Misguided Journeys: Petrarch’s and Ulysses’

The poet’s soul acts as the protagonist, another instance of the characteristic representation of Petrarch’s psychomachia obvserved in previous poems.  In fact, the lyric “I” is completely absent from the poem, and the only hint of the poet’s physical or emotional presence is contained in the personal pronoun of l. 2.  The tone if the poem is confessional, yet the poet distances himself from it by adopting the third person.  Indeed, the object of desire is entirely absent after the first line as well.  The opening of the poem leads the reader to expect another sonnet about Laura, but it is as if the poet has become distracted, so consumed is he with the desperate state his soul finds itself in.  Having divided itself from the heart at the sight of Laura’s eyes, the soul flies to an earthly paradise.  The ambiguity of the Italian third person possessive pronoun means it is impossible to say whether this suo refers to the soul or to Laura.  It is quite possible, however, that such a distinction is irrelevant: both Laura’s and the soul’s paradiso terreno may be taken to refer to Vaucluse, where Petrarch first saw and fell in love with her.  It should be noted, however, that the addition of suo makes this paradise a personal one, quite different from the universal earthly paradise described by Dante at the summit of Mount Purgatory.  Where Dante finally reconciles with his beloved Beatrice and prepares for the happy event of his ascent to heaven, Petrarch’s soul feels itself deceived and remains unhappy in this earthly paradise.  Petrarch attempts to undertake a spiritual and emotional journey, but because he is pursuing the wrong kind of knowledge, he remains in a state of emotional and spiritual paralysis.  Like Ulysses in Inferno XXVI, Petrarch has deviated from his proper course.  They are both victims of a misdirected ardore.  Ulysses’ thirst for new experiences and knowledge of the world led him to neglect his human ties and brought him to destruction.  Petrarch’s ardite imprese (it is not specified whether these are amorous or literary, most likely both are intended), have led to his ruin, and his repentance along with the mention of frutto calls to mind the first sonnet of the collection (l. 12): e del mio vannegiar vergogna è ’l frutto, / e ’l pentersi.

Mirare, Vedere and the Act of Sight

Though Wyatt’s translation is quite a faithful one, some of his deviations highlight interpretive problems with Petrarch’s poem.  The translation of depinge as moisteth in particular suggests that Wyatt may have interpreted it as a synonymic counterpart to bagna, choosing to highlight the quality of wetness suggested by Petrarch’s verb.  It has been suggested that depinge refers not to Petrarch’s eyes but to his face, which reddens either with desire or shame as a response to the sight of the beloved.  Alternatively, it could be that the poet’s eyes have reddened as a result of his constant weeping.  This gives rise to the possibility of a counterintuitive reading of the first two lines of this sonnet, which suggests not clarity due to Laura’s radiance, as one might expect, but rather a blindness similar to that experienced by the poet in Canz. 339.  The rapturous tone of the first quatrain is quickly tempered by the realisation that the beauty which inspired the soul’s flight to its paradiso terreno is fickle and dangerous, like the spider’s web.  The soul has been deceived by what it has seen in l. 1, and rather than the anticipated happiness, it becomes locked in a confusion of desires which engenders a state spiritual and emotional stasis.  The soul’s defective sight in l. 1 appears to question the reliability of the eyes as instruments through which the true nature of things may be understood, yet by l. 7 it can see (vede), and, more importantly, understand its mistake.  Are we in fact dealing with two different kinds of sight in this sonnet?  A superficial mirare (l. 1) which is defective and liable to be deceived by worldly beauty, and a more profound vedere (l. 7) which is capable of penetrating the surface and discerning the true, fallen nature of the material world?

A Tangled Web: Ovid, Job, Dante and Petrarch

The spider’s web symbolises a deceptive beauty and its literary precedents invite the reader to associate it with an unrighteous hubris combined with a lack of spiritual understanding.  In Ovid’s Metamorphoses VI [Eng. trans. by A. S. Kline], Arachne’s refusal to acknowledge her debt to the gods as the ultimate source of her artistic ability establishes a debate about the true nature of art.  As Augustinus reminds Franciscus in the Secretum, all that is beautiful on earth should be loved not because of its beauty per se, but because it has come from the Creator.  The act of weaving as a metaphor for literary imitation is invoked by the verb si tesse, which reminds one of the root of the word testo.

The Book of Job also affords a certain prominence both to the image of the spider’s web and to that of the sterile root as a symbol of a lack of spiritual direction.  The following lines appear in Job 8:11-17:

8 11 Can the rush be green without moisture? or sedge bush grow without water? numquid vivere potest scirpus absque humore aut crescet carectum sine aqua
8 12 When it is yet in flower, and is not plucked with the hand, it withereth before all herbs. cum adhuc sit in flore nec carpatur manu ante omnes herbas arescit
8 13 Even so are the ways of all that forget God, and the hope of the hypocrite shall perish: sic viae omnium qui obliviscuntur Deum et spes hypocritae peribit
8 14 His folly shall not please him, and his trust shall be like the spider’s web. non ei placebit vecordia sua et sicut tela aranearum fiducia eius
8 15 He shall lean upon his house, and it shall not stand: he shall prop it up, and it shall not rise: innitetur super domum suam et non stabit fulciet eam et non consurget
8 16 He seemeth to have moisture before the sun cometh; and at his rising, his blossom shall shoot forth. humectus videtur antequam veniat sol et in horto suo germen eius egreditur
8 17 His roots shall be thick upon a heap of stones; and among the stones he shall abide. super acervum petrarum radices eius densabuntur et inter lapides commorabitur

Verses 14 and 17 in particular are echoed verbally by Petrarch, and indeed verse 17 seems to be inscribed with the poet’s very name.  The presence of sol and in horto (v. 16, perhaps suggesting the paradiso terreno of Petrarch’s fourth line) in the same passage would appear to confirm that Petrarch had these lines in mind when composing Canz. 173.  The opposition here between sterility and fertility is similarly adapted by Petrarch for use in the present sonnet, and the Biblical subtext helps to explain the repentant, confessional tone of the poem.  It is to be noted that, while the poet appears to be in a remorseful frame of mind, no specific sin is confessed.  The plural ardite imprese implies that we are dealing with more than just erotic desire for Laura.  The Dantean subtext establishes a link between Petrarch and Ulysses’ thirst for worldly knowledge, while the Ovidian allusion to the myth of Arachne suggests a hubristic perception of his own art.  Combined with the Biblical subtext, it would appear that Petrarch is repenting the lack of attention he has paid to his own spiritual well-being (see the Ascent of Mount Ventoux), brought about by the intensity of his love for Laura on the one hand, and love for secular art and literature (and by extension his personal desire for literary fame) on the other.

If this hypothesis is correct, Virgil’s explanation to Dante of lento amore in Purg. XVII, 125-137 must also be relevant here.  Describing the various kinds of defective love of which the souls Dante is about to see are being purged, Virgil tells him:

or vo’ che tu de l’altro [amore] intende,
che corre al ben con ordine corrotto.

Ciascun confusamente un bene apprende
nel qual si queti l’animo, e disira;
per che di giugner lui ciascun contende.

Se lento amore a lui veder vi tira
o a lui acquistar, questa cornice,
dopo giusto penter, ve ne martira.

Altro ben è che non fa l’uom felice;
non è felicità, non è la buona
essenza, d’ogne ben frutto e radice.

L’amor ch’ad esso troppo s’abbandona,
di sovr’a noi si piange per tre cerchi;

The rhyme words felice and radice are echoed in Petrarch’s sestet, establishing a clear link with this passage of the Commedia.  The implication is that Petrarch has not directed his attention towards that buona essenza, and thus has become living proof of Virgil’s words.  On the one hand, he has been deceived by the beauty of Laura and of the world, which he has loved too zealously, with the result that his soul can find no rest in its paradiso terreno.  On the other, he is guilty of the lento amore which has led to the neglect of his spiritual obligation as a Christian to know and to praise God above all else.  In short, like Adam and Eve in their paradiso terreno, Petrarch has pursued the wrong kind of knowledge and his unquiet and despairing state of mind is the result.

– Summary by Mike Hodder


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